Oct 032012
 

In the first book of the Fifty Shades trilogy, an emotionally damaged one-percenter attempted to coerce a college graduate into an abusive relationship (which she had no understanding of or desire for) through a combination of seduction, bribes, deception, stalking and emotional blackmail. She finally realized that she was neither submissive nor masochistic, returned his gifts, and left him. The end.

Hopefully Anatasia Steele would have realized there are other men in the world, that there are other options than a false choice between slut and old maid, and perhaps she might even experimented with BDSM with some other person who is not so deranged and compulsive.

Except it wasn’t the end.

***

When you’re a teenager and trying to create something, you don’t go for subtle. Every conflict is life and death, every separation is desolating. People do bad things because they’re rotten to the core, or because they were hurt when they were vulnerable.

My own early attempts at fiction were full of melodrama, abuse and even rape; not lingered on, but the two most prominent female characters in my fictional world both had pasts of physical, sexual abuse. (My main male character also lost his parents as a child.) As I and many, many other writers decided, this was deep and daring and edgy and dark. You could spin out narratives of discovery, revenge or hurt-comfort from such incidents, or just give people motivations. (See Women in Refrigerators and Speedball/Penance.)

James, to explain why Christian is the way he is, employs the devices of tragic pasts: poverty, and particularly abuse of women and/or children. The book opens up in Christian’s POV (for the first time), a flashback to his childhood abuse and witnessing his mother’s abuse by her pimp.

For Ana and the book’s readers, this explains why a man who says he loves her so often treats her in a way that makes her unhappy. Christian isn’t a steelhard man who abuses his vast power over Ana because he’s selfish and entitled; he’s a hurt and abandoned child whose mother failed him.

The book uses Ana’s Electra complex to resolve her problems with Christian. Christian is the father she wants to possess, but she displaces the parts she doesn’t like about him onto an array of bad mothers she wants to destroy: his “crack whore” birth mother, his adoptive mother, Mrs. Robinson, a character we will meet soon, etc. They’re rivals for Christian’s love, and therefore must be bad, must have failed him. The solution is to treat him like a child, re-mommy him and fix him, thereby making the heterosexual, monogamous nuclear family possible. In transactional analysis terms, Ana flips relationship from Ana=Child/Christian=Parent to Ana=Parent/Christian=Child, instead of having an Adult/Adult transaction.

This would be somewhat excusable if this were written by an adolescent and posted on Fanfiction.net. But it is written by a middle-aged career woman and mother, and professionally published.

**

Ana goes through her copious grieving while getting used to her new boss, Jack Hyde.

And so a pattern develops: wake, work, cry, sleep. Well, try to sleep. I can’t even escape him in my dreams. Gray burning eyes, his lost look, his hair burnished and bright all haunt me. And the music . . . so much music—I cannot bear to hear any music. I am careful to avoid it at all costs. Even the jingles in commercials make me shudder.
I have spoken to no one, not even my mother or Ray. I don’t have the capacity for idle talk now. No, I want none of it. I have become my own island state. A ravaged, war-torn land where nothing grows and the horizons are bleak. Yes, that’s me. I can interact impersonally at work, but that’s it. If I talk to Mom, I know I will break even further—and I have nothing left to break.

Christian emails her at work to remind her that her friend Jose is doing a gallery show, and offers to drive Ana there, as she has no car at the moment. She accepts this flimsy contrivance; she can’t rent a car or get her friend to drive her to the show?

I must be strong, but I want to go to José’s show, and deep down, the masochist in me wants to see Christian.

This is masochism in the emotional sense, not the BDSM sense, just to be clear.

And there she is with the Expander again, only a few days after leaving him forever. Of course, the first words out of his mouth are, “When did you last eat?” He takes her in a private helicopter flight from Seattle to Portland where they attend José’s gallery showing of photographs of Ana.

Same controlling Christian, same dim-witted Ana, same paranoid jealousy from both of them, same American characters using British expressions, same slow pacing… EL James is remarkably consistent. Very little has actually changed, and both characters seem ready to pick up where they left off, as if the last beating never happened.

Ana does point out that Christian is a mass of contradictory commands and mixed messages, and Christian basically ignores her complaint, buys every single portrait of her, and demands they leave. For no good reason, Ana knuckles under and agrees, though she takes the opportunity to hug her friend and make Christian jealous. (Don and Betty Draper have better communication than these two.)

It has the desired effect, resulting in a a tortured makeout session in an alley. She apologizes to him; not clear for what. She’s deliberately being “bad” to get his attention. She can control him, but through emotional and sexual manipulation, not through any kind of clear communication.

***

For the sake of my own sanity, I will not spend quite as much time on each chapter of the second book. Many other people have diagnosed the pathologies of this peculiar work, as everything from anti-feminist backlash to covert child pornography, so I will concentrate on this generally reactionary text’s efforts to roll back any acceptance of kink in mainstream culture.

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